Charise Meracle Harper, author of many children’s books, documents her childhood in this humorous, touching graphic memoir. In chapters that focus on sibling power dynamics, Harper proves herself worthy of the title “bad sister” but, in the process of owning her badness, she finds her way to redemption.
Like many older siblings, Charise isn’t crazy about the new little brother stealing attention from her, but as Daniel gets older, they end up being constant companions by default. Charise comes up with an endless supply of inventive games that Daniel is always willing to go along with. The first chapter provides a perfect window into their relationship: Charise convinces Daniel that if he eats cat food, the cat will love him best. When she gloats over his gullibility and gets in trouble, she learns an important lesson. If you’re guessing that she learns to be nicer to her brother, you’re underestimating the narrator’s brutal honesty: instead, she learns “not to laugh out loud” so she won’t get caught next time.
The flat-colored illustrations with simple backgrounds make it easy to focus on the primary action in each panel. Facial expressions are drawn with precise lines that capture the subtle emotions that pass between the siblings. Although the time period isn’t specified, adult readers will likely recognize it as being pre-Internet, and kids may wonder at the lack of supervision as Charise and Daniel ride off helmetless on one bike, carrying skateboard and rope. “Don’t worry, I’m going to be careful,” Charise tells their mother, who nods agreeably, but readers know better than to believe her. Charise doesn’t exactly mean to put Daniel in danger, it’s just that she wants each game to be faster, bigger, more exciting. And Daniel, despite all his injuries, appreciates it because they do have a lot of fun together. Sometimes their adventures end up harmless, such as when they go dumpster diving in a quest for discarded art supplies and other treasures. Occasionally Charise realizes that in order not to get in trouble, she needs to allow Daniel to get even with her, as when she accidentally hits him too hard with a hockey stick and then allows him to punch her in the arm. But usually, as Charise puts it, “The best games were always painful.”
For Charise, it’s only fun if she wins, and each chapter is a rumination on her own powers as compared to her brother’s. Though Charise continues to make bad choice after bad choice, the reader can’t help but empathize with her—she wants to be good, but she wants to be in charge and win even more. “It was exhausting to be mean,” she confesses. Still, Harper’s struggle to analyze her own past behavior helps make Charise a sympathetic character. When one of her games eventually causes Daniel real harm, she is finally able to move forward and make strides in becoming a kinder person.
Harper wraps her memories in a rueful self-analysis that’s humorous but also at times profound. Bad Sister is a welcome addition to the growing canon of contemporary graphic memoirs and is a recommended purchase for schools and libraries where such titles are popular.
By Charise Mericle Harper
Art by Rory Lucey
First Second, 2021
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)